Permalink to Why Compelling Direction is Key to a Project Team

Why Compelling Direction is Key to a Project Team

Smart leaders know that a clear, compelling picture of what success looks like is crucial for engaging and motivating their team. And really smart ones have a fully developed story with ‘chapters’ to be used for different audiences.

Nasa’s compelling direction

The Mars Pathfinder, which delivered a huge amount of information about the red planet, was successful for NASA because team leaders had a story to tell and stuck to it. What was it? To show NASA’s commitment to exploring planets through a relatively low-cost project with the slogan of ‘faster, better, cheaper’. It’s all about having a compelling direction which means a project with a story to tell.

Like a story

Consider a book. Books have chapters – a road map for where the book is going. A good book doesn’t stray from its story from one chapter to the next. It’s the same with big projects. A good leader stays on theme and focuses on that compelling direction through the project.

The chapters are the building blocks of the story and each one is important, but all must operate as one entity. Likewise, a smart project leader continues to use the story to engage, focus and refocus, if necessary, the team and all the stakeholders.

All the chapters make up the story as the entity becomes an integrated whole with no individual piece more important than another. The leader may emphasize certain elements or chapters, depending on the audience, and ensure that all stakeholders remain aligned during the journey, but never lose sight of the compelling direction. And neither should the team.

Some of the individual chapters might be:

  • The ‘Why’ of the project – the business case.
  • The Scope of the project which comes after the business case is established. This is when you ask questions like: Based on all our assumptions about cost and execution, is it feasible?
  • Readiness – prepare for execution. This requires constant updating and communication to ensure alignment between all the groups, and may include your purpose as a team, the team’s values, and how it works together, resolves conflict, communicates, and organizes.
  • Who is on the Team. This might involve an organization chart with concentric circles.

It’s one thing to have the chapters of the story, but the story must still be compelling, so the leader should simplify the message, fight or manage complexity, and initiate critical metrics.

Finally, how should this ‘book’ be used? The leader uses the story to clarify and to work on deliverables, roles, schedules, highlighting best practices, resetting expectations, communicating value, coaching team members, and bringing on board new team members and new partner organizations. Ideal times to re-tell the story are at 90-day milestone meetings to check in on team performance, communication with the workforce, and in-team meetings.

Now the book is done. The ‘reader’ is happy and your project is successful.

To learn how to use Compelling Direction in your work, contact us. Stay in touch by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.


Permalink to How to Know When to Take a Risk Assessment

How to Know When to Take a Risk Assessment

Mental courage is important for a leader. It lets you examine all the options, including those that don’t initially attract you. But for a team leader or project leader to show mental courage, you must take a risk assessment. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What happens to you if you speak up?
  • What happens to you if you don’t?
  • What happens to others if you speak up?
  • What happens to others if you don’t?

Mental courage

Here is an example of a project leader showing mental courage. The new director of a mining project was told that completion estimates of the schedules and budget were set, but once he got his feet wet he found out those schedules were unlikely to be met. He knew from prior experience that there are always layers and nuances to learn, and discover. It’s important for a leader to show the courage and mental toughness not to make a decision when it may be premature.

So the project leader asked questions of his team members. He would say: “Help me understand” or “There’s something that concerns me a little” or “What’s your perspective on this?”

As this was going on his boss asked him about his views, and he said he hadn’t made up his mind yet. He wanted more time, but made sure to book a meeting with his boss at the three-month mark – three months after he took over the project as leader. When that time arrived, the project director was ready; he asked his boss for additional resources and wanted to bring in an outside person who could analyze the situation and test his own assumptions. Through this exercise, he and his boss were able to amend the schedule.

What are the benefits of demonstrating courage?

  • In resisting the pressure to commit to a certain point of view too soon, he avoided looking like he was quick to judge, and avoided alienating his people. In short, he won their trust.
  • He used this time to explore the issue with the team, and get their insights.
  • He slowed things down to make sure he was right. This was important since it would involve taking some bad news up the organization (i.e., extending the deadline).
  • He convinced his boss that the integrities of himself and the boss were on the line.

It’s all a matter of having the courage of your convictions to take appropriate action. Team cultures are built on the accumulation of little actions. A good team leader will always communicate the importance of the team’s culture and the importance of respect.

To receive tips like these each month which are designed for senior executives leading teams doing work critical to the success of their organization, sign up for the Big Tree Strategies newsletter.

Permalink to How to Keep Your Team Aligned on the Road to Success

How to Keep Your Team Aligned on the Road to Success

To keep your car on the road, you need to ensure that the wheels are aligned. If you’ve ever driven a car with misaligned wheels, you’ll know it’s a weird, not to say, dangerous condition.

The car seems to have a mind of its own, tracking to one side or other; steering is vague and your confidence is shaken. Will I make it round this corner? Will I get where I’m going?

Alignment of all team members

Large projects can often have the feeling of being on the verge of chaos. There are so many variables that teams are managing that keeping them all in the right order can be a challenge. Our work with teams on large capital projects shows that there is often a predictable pattern as we work with a team.

First, there is firefighting, where many urgent issues need attention.

Next we observe a shift to the leaders and team becoming a little more reflective and open to talking about how the team is doing.

Finally, the team recognises that if it invests time and effort in team productivity, the payback can be dramatic.

We suggest team leaders think carefully about alignment when they embark on team development.

Is your large project team aligned?

3 questions for leaders of teams to ask themselves:

  1. What stage is your team in? Are you in the firefighting stage? If so, you’re likely thinking about ‘banging heads together’ (an expression a client used not long ago). There are probably many challenges that your team could be working on – clarity of the execution plan; support of sponsors; getting work done on site; relationships between owner and contractor; making sure you have the right people on the project; and on it goes…
  2. Are you clear about what development the team needs to be aligned? Do you have a vision for the kind of team you want to lead? One of our clients speak passionately about the need for his team to be intentional because he has been on a team that successfully completed a challenging, dangerous piece of work. He has a model in mind of what his current team needs to be to be successful. Do you?
  3. Are you committed to spending the time and money on developing the team? Developing a project team (or any other team for that matter) takes sustained effort. An aligned team is created over time, by developing habits and behaviours that will ensure the team stays on the road and is successful. As with any effort, this takes commitment and investment.

Success is found through the repeated application of the right effort at the right time. Alignment means that team members are working effortlessly towards the goal of project success.

Click here to learn more about the work we do with large project team alignment and what results you can expect from your team.


Permalink to Three Mistakes Newly-Promoted Managers All Make – Part Three

Three Mistakes Newly-Promoted Managers All Make – Part Three

We finish the three-part series on mistakes newly promoted managers make. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here. In order for your team members to better assess themselves, we can help – take a look at our Team & Individual Assessment service.

Pushing to be promoted before you’re ready

In their zeal to grow their careers, some managers apply to senior jobs too quickly in order to get ahead. All they prove is that they don’t yet have the judgement to know the growth they still need to make.

Jo was clearly a manager on the move. After receiving her engineering degree, she joined an engineering consulting firm. She had done a great job in her first two roles, taking on roles supporting mining projects seemingly effortlessly, earning some very senior attention in their firm. She was very pleased with her career so far and she had now been in her third role for about a year working as an analyst. She was eager to get ahead and had had a conversation with her boss that morning to let him know she would be ready very soon if an opportunity came along.

To her surprise, he looked at her and shook his head. “I’m on my way to a meeting this morning but let’s chat about this tomorrow morning.” They set a time and she went back to work feeling a little uneasy. He hadn’t looked pleased with her. She had thought she was doing the right thing, showing initiative, speaking up for herself and letting him know her commitment to growing her career. What would he have to say tomorrow?

The next morning, they met in his office, sitting at his visitor table. He asked her why she thought she was ready for that next role. She talked about her accomplishments and her ambitions and her commitment to her career.

He nodded and commented that everything she had said was very true. “You have been very committed to doing well and to making a good career. And we appreciate that about you,” he said. “And you take on every task we throw at you with enthusiasm and energy.” Then he asked her what she thought she needed to learn next.

What do you need to learn next?

This question threw her a bit but she rallied and talked about the technical challenges she saw in the next role that she hoped for.

He nodded but asked her if there was any other preparation she needed to do to be ready for it? She looked at him questioningly. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she asked.

He nodded again and then he told her that in all of her comments, she had missed speaking about seasoning and growing the mature judgment that she would need in the new role. “The last thing I want for you, Jo, is to be put into a role where this kind of judgment is needed and to see you fail. And if you take on the role too soon before you are ready, you could torpedo your career and make advancement much more difficult. You are at a critical spot in your career and it’s a spot where many fail. I want to see you succeed.”

He went on, “You have not been working on the most complicated projects yet and so you will need some experience with these. Promotion is always a judgement call and often there is a difference in perception between a candidate and those who would make the choice on promotion. While you might feel you are ready, I feel you would benefit from another year in your current role. And there are three things you can do to increase your chances.”

 Three things to know before a promotion

  1. You need to become more of a team player. In the next role, there will be more staff management time and less technical time. To prove your ability to manage in a positive way, you need to be respected by your peers for us to have evidence that they will take your direction well. We need people to be intentional about how they are in their teams and take as much pleasure and excitement in the team being successful as they are about their own success.
  2.   In your current role, you haven’t had some of the more complex and challenging assignments. You need to be involved in these to stretch you and allow you to develop your maturity and judgment. I will look for a project that you could become involved in, not as a replacement for your current role but in addition to it. This will help you prove that you are capable of complex reasoning as well as balancing competing work pressures.
  3.   You need to work hard to help others succeed. For example, in all the conversation we’ve had today about your career, I haven’t heard anything about the team you are on and how you have helped them. If you were to move up, whom would you suggest replace you? Are they ready yet to move up? I believe that a person shouldn’t get promoted until they have grown a couple of possible candidates to take their place. Look for ways to help some more junior staff grow and demonstrate that management can have confidence in your ability to manage others’ careers, not just your own.


Her boss asked her to go away and to think about the conversation, then return the following week with a plan for how she could stretch and grow in the work she was doing. It turned out to be a pivotal conversation in her career. Years later, she would look back and see that it was at that point, that her real career growth had begun. She had embraced his advice and had bloomed where she had been planted. And she’d never forgotten the advice about being an intentional  team player. Every new level of peers had welcomed her when they experienced her willingness to enable their success as well as her own.


Big Tree Strategies is a consulting firm for senior executives in charge of teams managing large projects that are critical to their organization’s success. Sign up for our monthly newsletter. Take our 2 minute assessment to understand where your team is winning and where improvements are needed. Contact us for help with your teams running large capital projects.


Permalink to Do You Keep the Team Moving Even When it is Out of Scope?

Do You Keep the Team Moving Even When it is Out of Scope?

Who Pays for Snow Clearance ?

Imagine this: Your company, Workerbee Inc, is the construction contractor on a major capital project, the White Hills mine. It is owned by a major mining company, Big Kahuna. Your project is in the Canadian North, where winters are long and cold. You are the project manager for Workerbee on the White Hills project.

You receive a phone call at 4 AM on a January morning. “We’ve had a major dump of snow at the site,” you’re told by your operations manager. “The problem is the snow removal company is a no-show this morning and we’ve got 30 centimeters of the white stuff preventing the crews from getting to the site and it’s still coming down. What should I do, boss?”

Your instinct is to say “Call the Project Director for White Hills at Big Kahuna and get him to do something about this. The snow removal contract is with them, not us.”

Your second thought, the one you go with, is “Get some equipment together and get to clearing the snow. Our crews need to get on site or we’ll be behind on the deliverables for the week and we can’t afford to wait.” Later in the day you clear the course of action with the project director from Big Kahuna. Production goes on and you’re making the progress you need to against plan.

But We Kept The Project Team Moving

A month later your project accountant comes to your door. “That snow clearing we did for the project a few weeks ago? Do you know how much it cost us? I’ll tell you – $9,000. We had a crew working on it for 10 hours because of the blizzard. We didn’t have enough equipment and we had to rent some. How do we bill the client for the work as it’s out of scope for us?”

The answer to this question depends on what sort of agreement you have set up with the client, Big Kahuna. If your project is like many, you may struggle to get payment – you may run into objections based on the fact that this was not your role to fulfil. There was a snow clearance contract with someone else and the client should have dealt with them (even if it meant a slow down at the site).

Alternatively, you may have run into few problems because this type of eventuality had been anticipated and a course of action determined long before the snow fell.

Probably your agreement is based on the spirit of understanding and cooperation and anticipates this kind of eventuality. Perhaps you and your client have already determined a course of action for these kinds of issues.

Our research at Big Tree Strategies, shows that stand out projects are set up using interest based agreements. Once in place these agreements allow for greater success in settling disputes of the type outlined above.

Interest-based Agreements

Getting to Yes, the best seller book based on the Harvard Negotiation Project, lays out the two paths that are possible in setting up (and managing) agreements:

Positional Bargaining Interest-based Bargaining
We are adversaries We are joint problem-solvers
We seek victory (over you) We seek agreement (together)
We want concessions We want to work together to agree who gets what
We dig in to our position We dig out to find shared interests
We mislead We are open and use principles
We insist on our position We insist on objective criteria
We use pressure We use reason and yield to principle, not pressure
We want to win We want win-win

If your White Hills project was set up using an interests-based approach, you and the project director from Big Kahuna would already have the principles in place that would guide an out-of-scope activity; the conversation would be about how to accommodate the snow clearing activity which was undertaken to keep the project on time.

In the absence of these principles and agreements, the conversation could quickly disintegrate into a finger pointing, recriminations and a lack of payment for the doing the right thing for the project.

So, how are you and your team doing in managing to principles and not positions?

  • Do you have agreements set up that are principles-based?
  • Does everyone always keep their eye on the long game (i.e. accomplishing the business goals)?
  • Do positional behaviours get dealt with immediately so that all parties can find a win?

Find ways to reset the conversation. Seek principles you can agree on and insist on using them in solving problems and disputes.

Big Tree Strategies is a consulting firm for senior executives in charge of teams managing  large projects that are critical to their organization’s success. We provide a consistent, coachable and repeatable program that teams learn and apply as they do their work.
Drop us a line or give us a call if there may be an area on your large capital project team that needs some help. In the meantime, sign up for our newsletter, you’ll find monthly tips applicable to the challenges faced on large project teams.

Permalink to Strategic Planning – Four Must-do’s for a Successful Planning Cycle

Strategic Planning – Four Must-do’s for a Successful Planning Cycle

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs”.
–Henry Ford

Four Musts for Planning Cycle

Goal Reset

Once a year, during a period that suits the company’s natural rhythm (for accounting firms, for example, nobody is focusing on anything other than client work from February to May) conduct a lessons learned and goal reset for the coming period. This activity may involve formal data gathering, inclusion of outside experts, restatement of vision and mission statements and other items fundamental to the organization’s positioning in the market place. This does not mean that they need to be reworked in their entirety – that depends on the judgement of the Executive and Board.

Action Planning

The bridge to strategic management is the regular updating of actions plans that support the strategic direction. This should not be signaled as extra work; instead it should be part of the management discipline of 30, 60, 90 day plans. Keeping planning to manageable chunks and checking on progress regularly allows for flexibility and small changes to direction.

Line of Sight to Personal Objectives

The continual and deliberate linkage of the action plans and personal objectives builds a sense of commitment to what the organization is attempting to do in the world.

One of the most effective examples we’ve seen was a vice president who created a small, professionally formatted work book for everyone in his organization. It was intended to give a direct connection between the goals, objective and metrics for the year and each employee’s personal objectives.

The booklet contained:

  • Vision and Values of the organization (provided by the organization)
  • Key Metrics for the year (provided by the organization)
  • Goals and Objectives for the year (developed by the leadership team)
  • Department Goals ( developed by the department)
  • Team Goals (developed by the team leaders and their teams)
  • Individual Team Member Goals (developed by the individual with input from the team leader and other team members)

Celebration & Accountability

Quarterly celebrations of success reinforce progress that is being made on the plan and communication of priorities on an ongoing basis. They also allow for reinforcement of accountability.


Permalink to Strategic Planning – Rethink the Planning Cycle

Strategic Planning – Rethink the Planning Cycle

A few years ago we worked with a business unit in a large bank to conduct their annual planning. As they arrived in the room one member of the team said “Ah, the planning game begins again.” When asked for an explanation, he said “Well, we all know the rules of the game. We’re expected to sand-bag our results to make them look like they’ll meet our ‘stretch goals’. Of course, we all know that the real goals are less than the stretch goals, so we have to make stuff up.”

With strategic planning, it’s easy to assume that forcing the process will still produce acceptable results. Frequently, planning is conducted according to the organization’s budget cycle and the calendar for planning is predetermined by finalizing financials and Board submissions.

An alternative to the budget lockstep is start earlier, or not ‘start’ at all. Consider instead the use of an 18-month rolling plan. The idea is firstly to uncouple the planning activity from the budget cycle and secondly to extend the horizon of the plan beyond a calendar year. In this way, the planning activity can be conducted based on another set of assumptions – what’s good for the enterprise, not what’s good for finance.

Of course, budgeting is still critical. The difference is that budgeting is part of the planning cycle; planning shouldn’t be part of the budgeting cycle.

Permalink to Strategic Planning – The Power of Parallel Thinking

Strategic Planning – The Power of Parallel Thinking

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime”.  Babe Ruth


The power of Parallel Thinking

A few years ago, we were approached by a large company, to help the internal-audit unit manager develop a strategic plan. We soon discovered why we had been asked to help. The manager was a dictator. He believed that it was his job to retreat to a quiet place (his office) and emerge several weeks later with a fully formed plan for his group to implement. The problem with his plan? It only contained his thinking, which wasn’t right, and as a result nobody really cared.

Strategic planning is a collaborative effort. Experts may be consulted and offer perspectives, but there is no substitute for those working in an organization, coming together to consider options and make plans. While final authority often rests with the Executive and Board, these groups seldom have the diversity, knowledge or understanding of customer needs to comprehensively plan for the future.

“Concertina planning”

The most successful approach to strategic planning that we have seen deliberately uses different groups of people at different times. Think of a concertina – the musical instrument – as a metaphor. When the concertina is squeezed the smallest group (management and/or the Board) takes care of their piece of the planning process – most often aspects that require in-camera discussions, confidential information and areas where authority is required

Where the concertina is expanded, more people are brought to the table for specific purposes – often to tap their knowledge, explore a diversity of opinions and insights, action planning or to keep them abreast of developments.

Strategic planning is seldom accomplished in less than two months. This starts from the time that initial meetings are held, through data gathering, forming judgements, making decisions and detailing action plans. During this time the concertina may be squeezed and released several times.


Three Critical Elements for ensuring a robust but living plan:

  1. Robust Process – Plan the planning process carefully with a simple but effective build from one element to the next.
  2. Engage the right people at the right time – Harness the power of people’s brains, experiences and diversity. In doing so, you guard against group think or dictatorship.
  3. Let leaders lead – The planning approach suggested here is not democracy. Leaders must lead through the process – they must exercise clear thinking, courage and decisiveness.

Permalink to Strategic Planning – Ensuring a Robust, Living Strategic Plan

Strategic Planning – Ensuring a Robust, Living Strategic Plan

“One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to do is to supply light and not heat”.  Woodrow Wilson


Robust Living Plan

Strategic Plans can be strange creatures. They contain our best and most hopeful thinking; at the same time they are a temptation to hasty action. The worst plans are hurriedly conceived and hurriedly implemented as if the war can be won in a single battle. They also can become a macho expression of the gung-ho attitude of the team creating them.

To have an effective plan, strive for balance and poise:

  1. Be sure, but not dogmatic – Dogma requires a blind adherence to a point of view. No management group should be so sure of their strategic plan that they are not open to considering new information.
  2. Be decisive, but not hasty – Having arrived at a set of conclusions through a well-constructed strategic planning process, action must be decisive. However, planners often ‘front-end load’ the actions to be taken, unnecessarily straining their organization’s ability to deliver.
  3. Be clear but not simplistic – The thinking of the planning team must be successfully reflected in the written plan. This must be clear so it can be easily communicated, but not reduced to simplistic notions and acronyms.
  4. Commit to strong strategic management – The strategic planning process must be supported by strong strategic management practices such as 90-day check-ins on progress and ‘tweaks’ to the plan based on interim plan reviews.

How have you managed to effectively implement your company’s strategic plan? What other points of advice would you add to this list? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Permalink to Strategic Planning – The Fallacy of the Simple Answer

Strategic Planning – The Fallacy of the Simple Answer

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”. Voltaire

Strategic planning seems to offer a contradictory set of possibilities. On the one hand planning promises clarity and certainty – use tools such as a SWOT analysis, market research and sound prioritization, goes the argument, and all will become clear. Once our direction is set, the job is to stay on plan.

“But wait a moment,” say those who want more flexibility.

“How can we be certain in a world of turmoil and change? We need to be agile and opportunistic. We need to be able to keep our options open. We need to keep thinking”.

Strategic planning should aim to provide both certainty and a healthy dose of doubt.

Either/Or vs Both/And

Barry Johnson in his book Polarity Management makes the point that too often complex problems are treated as if they ‘Either/Or’ problems. For example companies rush from centralizing control (the problem) to decentralizing it (the solution) in the hope that they will release creative energy nearer the customer. This may happen, but soon unintended consequences start showing themselves. Decentralization of decision making, for example, can lead to a loss of efficiency that is gained from coordination. And sooner or later, the pendulum starts creeping back.

From a planning and management perspective, we should avoid the simplistic ‘flavor of the month’ answer. Instead of relying on ‘Either/Or’ thinking, we should use ‘Both/And’ reasoning. ‘Both/And’ approaches require us to recognize the positives of both our options and search for ways to plan to benefit from those benefits. So, instead of swinging wildly from centralized to decentralized control, we should look for creative and innovative ways to get the best of both worlds – maintain central purchasing of key services and good, while delegating customer related decision making as close to the client as possible. It is possible to have the best of both centralized decision making and decentralized autonomy, but only if it deliberately planned for.

A Guide, not a Straitjacket

Strategic planning is only the first step in successful strategic management. A well-crafted strategic plan is the result of careful thinking that avoids, as far as possible, the traps of binary, Either/Or thinking. Once the strategic plan is complete, of course, it is potentially obsolete, overtaken by changes in the market place or the loss of a key account to a competitor. Strategic management needs to use the plan as a firm guide to the enterprise not as an inflexible straitjacket. Plans can seldom be “locked down”. More often they provide a playbook for a period of time and give management a guideline for activities and behaviours in the business.

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